Ben Stiller's Unexpected Adventures In Comedy The star of Noah Baumbach's new film, Greenberg, initially wanted to be a serious actor — and he's still got a thing for Vietnam War movies. Stiller talks to Terry Gross about how he got from that initial ambition to films like Meet the Parents and Zoolander.

Ben Stiller's Unexpected Adventures In Comedy

Ben Stiller's Unexpected Adventures In Comedy

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The Talking Cure: After a breakdown, the neurotic hero of Noah Baumbach's Greenberg (Ben Stiller) reaches out to old friends (and a new one or two) in the effort to right himself. Wilson Webb/Focus Features hide caption

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Wilson Webb/Focus Features

Actor Ben Stiller has starred in a wide range of movies, from big comedy hits like Meet the Parents and its sequel, Meet the Fockers, to indie films like The Royal Tenenbaums and Your Friends and Neighbors. In Noah Baumbach's new film, Greenberg, Stiller takes a darker turn, playing Roger Greenberg, a 40-year-old ex-musician who's just had a mental breakdown.

After recovering in a hospital for several weeks, Greenberg agrees to house-sit at his brother's place in Los Angeles. Alone in L.A. while his brother's family is on a long vacation in Vietnam, he tries to reconnect with some old friends and meets a new one — his brother's personal assistant, Florence, a singer in her early 20s who is also trying to figure her life out.

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'I'm Impressed By You'

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'Musso & Frank'

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'How Long Do We Wait?'

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Stiller tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross that to play Greenberg, he had to figure out what was behind the character's breakdown.

"You know, [Greenberg's] a guy who hasn't really gotten to where he wanted to be in life and hasn't been able to accept that," Stiller says. "And he's very critical of everybody else in the world, and he's really probably too smart for his own good. So when the movie picks up, he's sort of at a place where he has to accept some things in his life that he's denied for a long time."

Both funny and sad, Greenberg is more tinged with rue than many of Stiller's earlier films, which include high-concept comedies like Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, as well as gross-out laugh riots like There's Something About Mary. Stiller says he gravitated toward comedies from the time he was in high school.

"[At first] I wanted to be a serious actor, but when I was about 17, [I saw] SCTV, which was really a changing point for me," he says. "That type of humor and that tone of what they were doing and that parody — that sort of show-business satire really hit home."

Interview Highlights

On how he relates to his character in Greenberg

"Well, I think everybody's had failures and decisions that you regret, and relationships that didn't work out. I think I've been really fortunate in my life to have had great things happen, and [have] friendships and love and family in my life over the years, but I've still had those bad decisions and things I've done in the past that I still regret. But for Greenberg, he hasn't had a lot of successes since the bad decisions, and he hasn't had anything to sort of temper that, and so it's a lot harder to get through the day. So I could identify on that level. I think there are a lot of people I know in my life who have had bad luck and who are very talented, good people, and it just hasn't worked out for them. Life isn't quite what they wanted it to be, and they have to figure out a way to get through the day, and we all have to. I have days like that too. I think it was just a matter of empathizing with this guy and not looking at him like he really screwed up or anything — but just a guy who was doing the best he can, just to get through."

On why he likes Vietnam War movies

"Some of my favorite films are of that genre. I remember seeing Platoon and just being deeply affected by it. ... Filmmaking-wise, to me, what [Oliver Stone] did there was just very impressive. [I] love Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. ... That era was when I was younger, and those were the movies that influenced me a lot. In a way I wanted to be doing those kinds of movies. ... And that's what I think Tropic Thunder is — my stab at being able to do one of those [Vietnam] films."

On working with Robert De Niro

"I remember doing the first scene in Meet the Parents and [being surprised at] how funny and how reactive he is. He listens. There was a scene where I'm meeting him for the first time, and we're standing in front of his house, and I was shaking his hand saying 'Hi' to him, and I looked at something on the house behind him, and he literally like, turned all the way around to look at what I was looking at on the house — it wasn't even in the script or anything — and I immediately started cracking up. First of all, because I was nervous, because I was in a scene with Robert De Niro for the first time ever, and also because I couldn't believe how sensitive he was to what I was doing and how he just picked up on it and went with it. I think he has a really great sense of being in the moment and going for it. ... I think he just has a sense of humor and he's always had it, even in his serious roles."

On being a male model who couldn't turn left in Zoolander

"I guess we were trying to figure out a fatal flaw that a model would have that would really hinder them. There aren't that many, but I think not being able to turn left would probably be tough if you wanted to do runway work."

On what it was like to see his father, Jerry Stiller, starring in Seinfeld

"It really changed his life. For years and years, my parents were successful as a comedy team and did The Ed Sullivan Show and nightclubs and TV shows and all of that. And they did really, really well. But then when I think Seinfeld happened for my dad, it just changed people's perception of him, and it reached so many people. And I was really very, very happy to see that for him, because I think he's deserving of it. ... He loves to work; it keeps him going."

On when he knew he wanted to be an actor

"I always wanted to be a director, from the time I was about 9 or 10. I loved movies, and I knew that I wanted to make them. Acting sort of happened a little bit later. ... [At first] I wanted to be a serious actor, but when I was about 17, [I saw] SCTV, which was really a changing point for me. That type of humor and that tone of what they were doing and that parody — that sort of show-business satire really hit home."